Senate passes Blunt's higher ed plan

Thursday, April 26, 2007

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Gov. Matt Blunt's plan to finance dozens of college building projects with money from the state's student loan authority advanced to the House on Wednesday, passed by the Republican-led Senate over the objections of most Democrats.

The $350 million college building plan is coupled with a new scholarship program, new limits on university tuition increases and enhanced state oversight that supporters praised as a historic overhaul of Missouri's higher education system.

Critics derided the bill as an ill-conceived, morally reprehensible collection of pork-barrel projects that fails to achieve the lofty economic development goals originally touted by Blunt.

The Senate passed the bill 23-11, with three Democrats joining all but one Republican in support of it. The vote sending the legislation to the House came one week after Republicans used a procedural maneuver to shut off Democratic debate and grant the bill preliminary approval.

On Wednesday, debate was pointed but brief, as opponents acknowledged the forgone conclusion of Senate passage and some lawmakers yearned to depart for a legislative softball tournament.

The legislation "represents one of the broadest reforms of higher education in the history of our state," said sponsoring Sen. Gary Nodler, R-Joplin, who later added: "This bill provides more hope and more opportunity to more students than anything this Legislature has done in decades."

Sen. Rita Heard Days, D-St. Louis, countered by calling the plan "an ill-conceived, poorly executed and morally reprehensible piece of legislation."

Added Days: "It's pork at its best, and we should be ashamed that we're jeopardizing future students who want to go to college."

Blunt first outlined plans in January 2006 to sell the assets of the Missouri Higher Education Loan Authority to finance a college construction plan that focused on life sciences research and high-tech industries.

The plan has undergone numerous transformations since then, perhaps most notably shedding its medical research buildings in favor of agricultural projects in response to concerns that the research buildings potentially could have been used for embryonic stem-cell research.

In retaliation for vocal opposition by two particular Democratic senators, Republicans last week axed two additional projects that were to have been built in their districts -- a cancer hospital and medical education center at the University of Missouri-Columbia and a pharmacy and nursing building at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

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